When Clovis North High plays Long Beach Poly in the CIF State South Regional tonight, the Broncos will encounter not only a historic program but one with a chapter as bizarre as it is new.
The Jackrabbits program has been around for 96 years, ranks No. 2 in the state in wins (720), has 19 Southern Section titles and has sent a nation-best 51 players to the NFL.
But, get this: The Broncos will also oppose a state preseason-ranked team that only three months ago was being pummeled so badly in the third quarter by Narbonne-Harbor City -- 56-0 -- that an official approached Poly's Raul Lara with the most humiliating question of his career: Do you want us to go with a running clock?
"I said, 'Nah, if we're going to get our ass kicked, let's get our ass kicked.' "
But it truly wasn't funny.
"It was embarrassing," Lara says. "It was a shock."
A week following the 56-0 debacle against South Open finalist Narbonne, Poly was whipped yet again, 29-6 by Bakersfield in what was expected to be an entertaining match of the state's most storied programs.
And the wrath of media, fans and students descended upon a once-proud Poly team that had nowhere to hide.
"We were 1-3," Lara says, "we were embarrassed and we were being ridiculed."
The 20-year Los Angeles County probation officer had few options: "There was really nothing else to do but trust ourselves, get back to the basics, play more physical and prove people wrong."
Offensively, the Jackrabbits have pounded teams lately, often removing sophomore quarterback Tai Tiedermann, going to a Wildcat formation and having running backs Manusamoa Luuga and Gerard Wicks take direct snaps.
But defense -- a staple in a 12-year Lara career that counts five section titles -- has restored tradition as the Jackrabbits have won 10 straight games, including four while capturing the Southern Section's Pac-5 Division, arguably the nation's finest.
First, Poly gave up only 37 points while going 6-0 in the Moore League.
Then, in the Pac-5 Division playoffs, the Jackrabbits gave up a defensive touchdown, fake punt score and a late touchdown against their reserves in a 40-25 win over Bishop Amat; held previously unbeaten Mission Viejo 20 points under its average in a 21-16 decision; did not give up an offensive score in a 13-10 conquest of previously unbeaten (disregarding forfeits) St. John Bosco-Bellflower; and held the state's then-No. 4 Mater Dei-Santa Ana to minus-14 yards rushing in a 35-17 victory for the section title.
Lara considers wide receiver/safety John Smith the team's most valuable player. And linebacker Jayon Brown is headed to UCLA.
"At the start of the year," Brown told the Los Angeles Times after the win over Mater Dei on Saturday before 12,736 fans at Angel Stadium, "we weren't playing together, but we are now."
Clovis North tight end/defensive end Josh Lovingood doesn't doubt the Jackrabbits' depth of talent, but he questions Brown's reference to team unity.
"They don't play together as a team," he says. "They are more individual players, sort of the Southern California mentality. We may not have as many athletes as they do, but we have a better team. I've said it before: We are the closest team in the Valley."
The Broncos, likewise, have caught Lara's attention.
"Holy cow," the coach says, "after looking at film, they're big and athletic. I've told our kids, who've been celebrating too much (after the Mater Dei win), 'Look, we're setting ourselves up here and Clovis North's going to whip our butts if we don't get our act together.' "
Lara is not a proponent of the state bowls, now in their seventh year, maintaining it's asking too much of his players following the grind of the Pac-5 Division playoffs and a 14-game season.
"It's just not an even playing field," he says, "especially for us after the competition we played."
Big stage arrives
CIF State Division I South Regional: Clovis North (12-1) vs. Long Beach Poly (11-3)
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Long Beach City College's Veterans Stadium
Tickets: $12 adults, $8 students
To the winner: State D-I title date with the North Regional champion -- either Granite Bay (11-3) or St. Ignatius-San Francisco (10-3) -- at 8 p.m. Dec. 14 at Carson's Home Depot Center.